By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Deployment of Indian troops in Sri Lanka and establishing of provincial councils by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution are two of the main results of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) signed on July 29, 1987. The 34th anniversary of the ISLA gives an opportunity to assess its achievements, failures, and its relevance today to the bilateral ties between the two countries.
As far as Sri Lanka is concerned ISLA and the deployment and subsequent withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) are part of history, without any relevance to its current developments and communal relations.
However, some Indian foreign policy analysts believe the ISLA is yet alive and provides an ideal instrument for India to undertake actions in its best national interest. Old IPKF hand, Col. (Retd) Rajinder Singh Sidhu said in a recent article that Sri Lanka is being recalcitrant in meeting its full obligations under the Accord. “This is in direct contrast to the alacrity shown by it in meeting the sensitivities of China even to the extent of amending its constitution. There is thus a case for India to secure its interests by more forceful interjection with the Government of Sri Lanka,” he said.
The IPKF was doomed from the very beginning as it failed to disarm the Tamil militants within 48 hours of assignment, the very first task given to it. However, the IPKF cannot be blamed as it was due to India’s failure to understand the terrorist leader Prabhakaran and his devious designs. The LTTE refused to surrender arms as agreed under the ISLA. Prabhakaran was airlifted by the Indian air Force from Bangalore to Jaffna on July 30, 1987 and was compelled to tell his people that he had accepted the ISLA, which envisaged the disarming of Tamil militants in two days. India was well aware the IPKF operation was doomed from the very onset. The LTTE had double-crossed them.
Two former Indian Diplomats
Two Cabinet Ministers trusted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi are old Sri Lanka hands who served in Colombo and played a crucial role in ISLA and IPKF in the 1980s. External Affairs Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar and Petroleum & Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri were posted at the Indian High Commission in Colombo in that crucial decade. As first secretary (political) in the Indian mission in Colombo, Puri played an important role by discussing the ISLA draft with Prabhakaran and finally getting Prabhakaran to travel to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who persuaded him to accept the ISLA.
Jaishankar succeeded Puri as First Secretary in the high commission and during the tenure he was also the political adviser. That was the most difficult period for India, as the IPKF had to fight the LTTE for more than two years during which they lost the loyalty of the Tamil population in the North and East. Finally, President Ranasinghe Premadasa gave the IPKF quit notice and the last batch of IPKF left in March 1990. Within 3 years Rajiv Gandhi and Premadasa were assassinated on the orders of Prabhakaran.
Minister Hardeep Puri in his book on Sri Lanka experiences, titled Perilous Interventions, acknowledged that “the decision to deploy the IPKF in Sri Lanka to implement the accord was, in hindsight, perceived as a high-level policy failure, and rightly so.”
The ISLA ran into trouble when the IPKF was instructed to implement the most important clause, “A cessation of hostilities will come into effect all over the island within 48 hours of signing of this agreement. All arms presently held by militant groups will be surrendered. The process of surrendering arms and the confinement of security personnel moving back to barracks shall be completed within 72 hours of the cessation of hostilities coming into effect.”
Dumping the waste
The LTTE refused to surrender arms and after a series of negotiations and arm-twisting, five truckloads of old weapons, ranging from homemade bombs to rusting anti-aircraft cannons were surrendered in August 1987. Prabhakaran refused to attend the much Media-hyped surrender ceremony in Jaffna and his political deputy, Dilip Yogi, instead of symbolically surrendering his German Luger pistol, silently placed it on a table and Defence Secretary, Gen. Sepala Attygalle, placed his hand on the pistol to complete the symbolic exchange. “This is a token gesture,” IPKF Commander, Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh said. “A beginning,” he expressed the hope.
However, India as well as Sri Lankan forces were aware that the LTTE had not surrendered its vast stocks of weapons. The Indian High Commissioner J N Dixit told media later, “Our troops are only half an hour away by air if any trouble arises,” obviously a warning to the LTTE. Two months later fighting broke out between the IPKF and the LTTE.
Prime Minister Gandhi also warned Prabhakaran. “If the LTTE does not agree and wants to take on the Indian Army, we will finish them within a week or 10 days,” he said. However, the war between IPKF and LTTE lasted a little over two years and claimed the lives of 1,240 Indian officers and soldiers and left over 3,000 maimed.
Although there were several peace proposals from India since 1983, serious talks on ISLA started only after the invasion of Sri Lankan airspace in June 1987 by India in its notorious ‘parippu’ (dhal) drop. In few weeks the ISLA draft was prepared and it had many ambiguities leading to uncertainties. Many clauses were one-sided and lacked reciprocity. The ISLA clause that “This agreement and the annexure thereto shall come into force upon signature”, is also indicative of the urgency, as are the short timelines for accomplishing the political and military resolutions within the Accord.
Four omitted clauses
Four most important clauses were not in the ISLA, but they were included in two letters exchanged by President J.R. Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The ISLA also states, “Residual matters not finalised during the above negotiations shall be resolved between India and Sri Lanka within a period of six weeks of signing this agreement.”
“The Government of India will underwrite and guarantee the resolutions, and co-operate in the implementation of these proposals,” the ISLA stated, but when IPKF left Sri Lanka in 1990, fully armed LTTE cadres were controlling the North and East, enjoying the amnesty and facilities given by President Premadasa.
President Jayewardene fulfilled Sri Lanka’s obligations under the ISLA by passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and holding of Provincial Council elections, where former militant Vartharaja Perumal became the Chief Minister of the temporarily amalgamated North and East Provincial Council. The LTTE boycotted the elections and took up arms against IPKF and later against Sri Lankan forces until the terror group was annihilated in 2009. The Supreme Court later found the amalgamation of North and East was unconstitutional and temporary merger was held null and void.
Two Indian cabinet ministers Puri and Jaishankar are among the most knowledgeable experts on what went wrong with ISLA, IPKF debacle and the Provincial Councils Act enacted as a result of ISLA, and they will be happy to leave the subject for historians, researchers and retired armed force members to debate without getting New Delhi and Colombo involved.